Moscow, , Feb 7 (AP/UNB) — A Taliban official said Wednesday that the United States has promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, but the U.S. military said it has received no orders to begin packing up.
Taliban official Abdul Salam Hanafi, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow between prominent Afghan figures and Taliban representatives, said officials promised the pullout will begin this month.
"The Americans told us that from the beginning of February to the end of April, half of the troops from Afghanistan will be withdrawn," Hanafi said.
However, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning said American defense officials had not received orders to start withdrawing.
"Peace talks with the Taliban continue, but (the Defense Department) has not received a directive to change the force structure in Afghanistan," Manning said.
Hanafi said both the U.S. and the Taliban would create technical committees that "will work on a timetable for the withdrawal of remaining troops."
Pentagon officials say they have no orders to withdraw troops. But in anticipation of such an order in the future, given the Trump administration's achievement of what it calls a "framework" for potential peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, military planners have been considering plans for how a pullout might be conducted.
The two-day talks in the Russian capital that wrapped up Wednesday sidelined the government of Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani.
Afghanistan's former president, Hamid Karzai, was involved in the meeting and hailed the discussions, saying the participants shared a desire for peace and stability and opposition to foreign intervention.
"We are happy with the outcome of the meeting," Karzai said.
Speaking after the Moscow meeting, the head of the Taliban delegation, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said talks on the U.S. withdrawal were continuing.
"We are in negotiations with the American side and we are trying that the American forces should go out as soon as possible," Stanikzai said. "The timeline is not fixed so far, it is not agreed upon, but we are negotiating this."
Efforts to find a negotiated end to Afghanistan's longest war have accelerated since the September appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as Washington's peace envoy. He has held several meetings with the Taliban.
Talks have mostly focused on a U.S. troop withdrawal and guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan would not again be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack other countries, according to both Khalilzad and Taliban officials.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the U.S. has been holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban.
"As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism," he said.
London, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — British Prime Minister Theresa May told business leaders in Northern Ireland on Tuesday that she is seeking changes to the U.K.'s withdrawal agreement with the European Union, but not the total removal of the Irish border provision that is the most contentious part of the deal.
Seeking to ease fears about the return of customs posts and vehicle checks, May said during a visit to Belfast that the British government is committed to preventing the construction of a physical border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the European Union.
The prime minister said she was in Belfast "to affirm my commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland — which is unshakable."
She also emphasized the government's support for the Good Friday agreement, the 1998 treaty that largely ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as "the Troubles."
May's words of reassurance did little to solve her Brexit border dilemma.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, but no withdrawal agreement has been approved because Britain's Parliament voted down May's plan last month, in part because of concerns about the border plan, known as the backstop. It is a safeguard mechanism that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
The border area was a flashpoint during the decades of conflict that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible border today underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.
But many pro-Brexit British lawmakers fear the backstop will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU, and say they won't vote for the EU divorce deal unless it is removed.
EU leaders, however, insist the withdrawal agreement the bloc struck with May's government late last year can't be reopened.
"The withdrawal agreement is the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal by the U.K," Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Tuesday. "We want the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible, so that the backstop will never be needed."
Still, May plans to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday seeking changes to the backstop, and will return to Parliament next week with — she hopes — a modified plan.
May said Tuesday she is seeking changes to the backstop, rather than its removal from the agreement, as some pro-Brexit British lawmakers want.
"I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future," she said.
"What Parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop."
Paris, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — A fire in a Paris apartment building early Tuesday that authorities suspect was an arson attack killed eight people and sent residents fleeing to the roof or climbing out their windows to escape.
A 40-year-old female resident was detained at the scene as police opened an investigation into voluntary arson resulting in death.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who spoke at the scene Tuesday morning, said the woman was known to have had mental health issues.
"I want to salute the huge mobilization of the Paris firefighters," he said. "More than 250 people arrived immediately and, throughout the night, saved over 50 people in truly exceptional conditions."
Firefighters rescued some from the roof as well as others who had clambered out of windows to escape the flames. Among the injured were at least six firefighters.
Castaner said the blaze that started on the second floor, had been extinguished and that 36 people were being treated for "relatively" light injuries.
City fire service spokesman Clement Cognon told The Associated Press that firefighters went door to door to ensure there are no more victims and prevent residual fires.
"The situation was already dramatic when the firefighters arrived," Cognon said.
Emergency workers are also seeking to shore up the building that was badly damaged after flames shot out of windows stretching across the upper floors, in images of the operation released by the fire service.
Prosecutor Remy Heitz told reporters at the scene that authorities suspect it was a criminal act.
"I heard a woman screaming in the street, crying and screaming for help," said witness Jacqueline Ravier, who lives across the street. She saw a young man blackened by smoke and a woman motionless on the ground. She said flames were shooting out for hours from the top of the building and smoke-covered victims were fleeing.
She said shaken residents were brought to her building and the one next door while firefighters continued to fight the flames.
"We feel the smoke," she said. "What's surprising is how long it lasted."
The building is on Rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement, one of the most high-end and calmest districts of Paris. It is close to the popular Bois de Boulogne park and about 1 kilometer (less than a mile) from the Roland Garros stadium that hosts the French Open tennis tournament and near the Parc de Princes stadium that's home to Paris Saint-Germain, the country's top soccer team.
More than 200 firefighters and emergency workers were involved in the operation, Paris police said, and the street was blocked off. Neighboring buildings were also evacuated.
The fire comes a month after a deadly explosion and blaze linked to a gas leak in a Paris bakery.
Brisbane, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — Australia's prime minister has toured the flood-stricken city of Townsville where two men have been reported missing.
While floodwater receded in Townsville on Tuesday, overnight monsoonal rain caused flash-flooding in communities to the north where authorities have warned residents to move to higher ground.
And police are still searching for two men who were last seen on Monday morning near floodwaters.
Authorities have warned Townsville residents not to swim in flood waters, in which crocodiles and snakes have been spotted.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited a new housing estate where scores of homes had been inundated.
Brussels, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — The European Union and Arab League say they agree on tackling conflicts in Syria and Yemen or stalled Middle East peace efforts but were unable to approve a joint statement at talks in Brussels.
The organizations' ministers were preparing Monday for a summit in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Feb 24-25.
Asked about the holdup, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "common ground was there on 90-95 percent of issues."
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit pointed out that there were "more complications on the European side rather than the Arab side."
Mogherini replied: "I would say rather the contrary."
Hungary objects to migration provisions in the statement, but the Europeans also want to avoid being seated around a summit table with Syria or Sudan's leaders.